“What History Looks Like” at Brown University

by Rebecca Nedostup
Published February 27, 2018

On March 9, 2018 the Cogut Institute and the Department of History present a panel featuring editors from Oxford University Press and St. Martin’s Press to discuss careers in publishing and best strategies for getting your work into print. Faculty Fellow Rebecca Nedostup writes about career exploration in the context of graduate studies and the impetus for the workshop series “What History Looks Like: The Skills and Work of the Historian,” which this panel complements.  

In 2017, the Department of History at Brown launched a workshop series for graduate students and faculty centered around the broad concept — and question — “What History Looks Like.” Building on two years of review and discussion that resulted in a departmental strategic plan and a Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan, the aim of the workshop series was to create a space in which historians at Brown University could share their diversity of practice in all the settings where historical work takes place. Department faculty and graduate students organize a dizzying array of seminars where they share works in progress among scholars in similar fields. In this space, we would ask questions about the past, present, and future of the profession as a whole.

In 2016-17 we launched the series with a roundtable, “What an Archive Looks Like: Sources and Community.” Scholars from various career stages talked about how they envision the body of sources with which they work and how they build a web of relationships and responsibilities to sustain and share them. A subsequent session addressed strategies for diversity and inclusion in the history classroom. Finally, the department invited members and alumni to address careers inside and outside of the academy, and grad students and faculty read and discussed together Maggie Berg and Barbara K. Seeber’s The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy (University of Toronto Press, 2016.)

Thinking with intention about professional training and career paths has been much on the minds of department students and faculty. Building on their work, the department launched a “door-to-door” approach to PhD education in spring 2017. When we welcome students through one “door” via admission and recruitment, we have the other “door” to professional pathways firmly in mind. In June 2017 through January 2018, the department was one of 36 nationally to take part in the American Historical Association’s Career Diversity Faculty Institutes. Supported by the Mellon Foundation, this initiative aims to better prepare graduate students and early-career historians for a range of careers within and outside the academy; the Faculty Institutes disseminated early models and best practices. Back at Brown, the Department of History adapted those lessons to form a Graduate Careers Committee, link the “door-to-door” framework to PhD admission discussions, and name a Director of Graduate Advising to work alongside the Director of Graduate Studies.

Thus the 2017-18 theme of “What History Looks Like” focuses on “The Skills and Work of the Historian”, exploring the variety of places where historians do their work, and the necessary skills they have developed along the way (including the “career diversity five skills” identified by the American Historical Association: communication, collaboration, digital literacy, quantitative literacy, and intellectual self-confidence.) At the first workshop, faculty and graduate student members of the careers committee talked frankly about their personal backgrounds, work experience, routes to career development, and the conscious and unconscious assumptions and fears that hold many in academia back from articulating interest in multiple career paths, even as data indicates its practicality. Indeed, the series will conclude in May with a graduate-student-only discussion of these data, their experience, and their concerns and hopes.

One proven method of moving forward, however, is to provide examples and possible mentors. In February, the department hosted a successful panel in which university staffers described their experience working with a range of digital projects of very different natures — and their possible collaborative utility for historians. They also reflected on their own career paths, and how above all the process of identifying a combination of intellectual and life goals allowed them to parlay their skills into positions that made sense for them. This kind of “dual-purpose” reflection is also the rationale of “Getting into Print,” a panel where participants will discuss both the intellectual and working world of editing, or in other words, working (as an editor) in publishing and working (as an author) with publishers.

Rebecca Nedostup is Associate Professor of History and Director of Graduate Studies in the Department of History.